The Safety Memo


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The Safety Memo

  1. 1. The Safety Memo A Case in Study Introduction The case this report attempts to critically analyze is adapted from “The Safety Memo”, page 72 in the book “Cases in Management and Organizational Behavior, Volume 2”. Throughout the report our primary focus is elucidating the facts, making inferences and clearly identifying the existing problem. We have used some theories of organizational behavior to propose solutions for the problem. We analyze the various solutions from a cost-benefit perspective in order to achieve an optimal solution. We conclude by stating some of the important lessons learnt from this case. The Facts Underlying the Case The main character outlined in “The Safety Memo” case is Gordon Baldwin. Gordon worked for 10 years for Pacific Bell, a highly structured and unionized phone company. He resigned from his job and tried out his luck in the jewelry business. But he realized he needed a stable, salaried job to support his family. Trying to rejoin his previous employer, he was disappointed to find out it was not hiring at that time. So he took up a job with at the Cable Company as a cable TV field technician. Though his job was similar to his previous one, the environment was a lot different. In sharp contrast to Pacific Bell, the Cable Company was fast-paced, entrepreneurial and non-unionized. Being the 12th largest in the nation and having offices country-wide, the company focused on building good customer service. After a two week ‘ride-along experience’ with a seasoned employee, he never received formal safety-skills training. This was unlike the phone company, which offered extensive employee safety programs. Using his previous training in the field, he was quick to observe the life threatening risks that his fellow employees were exposed to at the job. He reported his observations to his boss, Ron, and provided viable recommendations to fix these problems.
  2. 2. Meanwhile, the senior management was becoming increasingly aware of the need to establish a loss control program. The risk management department of the parent company criticized the Cable Company for having an OSHA rate of 23%. This meant that approximately one in four employees sustained serious and costly injuries on the job. Walsh, the CEO was pressured to implement a safety program to reduce the losses accruing from workplace injuries. He turned to Gil to look into the problem, because of his vast operational knowledge as the Executive Vice President of Engineering. There were other people in the organization who were in the loss control program. One of them was Joan, VP of the Southern California region, elected as the region’s sponsor for the safety committee. Terry, a member of her staff was enlisted to head this committee. Gordon, with his concern for safety, became a volunteer, and was subsequently appointed System safety coordinator by Terry upon Ron’s (Gordon’s boss) approval. Gordon now had a dual role. Sixty percent of his time was spent as a CATV technician while loss control activities took up the remainder of his time. After numerous recommendations being put forward by Gordon, no substantial improvements took place. Despite receiving positive reviews for his work from various managers, Bob (Ron’s manager) was reluctant to implement Gordon’s ideas. Gordon was disillusioned with the company. He felt he was not being taken seriously as he was just a technician. His ideas were not being adopted due to budgetary constraints and a generic resistance to new procedures that plagues most organizations. Gordon’ became frustrated since he thought his recommendations were important and suitable to the company’s safety policy. So he decided to write a memo, which he aptly titled ‘The Safety Memo’. In response to the memo, Gordon was asked to see Bob, the Gen. Manager. He was instructed to meet Gil to clarify some misleading statements in the memo he had written. Having heard stories about Gil’s authoritarian behavior and reputation of being uncompassionate, Gordon was scared of losing his job. Gordon was initially received calmly by Gil in his office. Soon the calmness was replaced by Gil’s loud and angry voice. He accused Gordon of writing false information in the memo. When Gordon tried to explain his case, Gil angrily said that the memo was based on inaccurate and inconsistent information. Amidst Gordon’s confusion, Gil questioned Gordon’s authority to teach someone as experienced and well versed in the organization as himself. His voice was loud enough to frighten Gordon, who was unable to even utter complete sentences. He was reminded of the Biblical characters, David and Goliath. At that moment, Gordon felt he was at the mercy of Goliath, both literally and symbolically. After being accused of manufacturing lies without thinking of the consequences to the company, Gil asked Gordon if the meeting had proved beneficial. Needless to say, Gordon was perplexed, shattered, and concerned about losing his job. The impact of Gil’s outburst was so bad that the thought of being asked to leave the
  3. 3. company made him feel better momentarily. Gordon spent the next few days trying to analyze what transpired during their meeting. Inferences we can make Carefully analyzing the facts, we are able to make a number of important inferences about Gordon, Gil and the Cable Company itself. Gordon’s personality is brought out by some of his actions. He liked working as a technician. It is also evident that he seemed to ‘fit in’ well with the organizational culture prevalent at Pacific Bell because that was the place where he decided to first look for a job after his stint as a jeweler. The difference he found between his new company and Pacific Bell unsettled him. He was an involved worker, and wanted to contribute in an effective manner to the company. He believed that feedback, a form of upward communication was quite essential. Gordon must also be credited for taking the initiative to make suggestions to Ron in the beginning, even though he was just a new employee. This demonstrated his commitment to a safe working environment as well as a genuine consideration for his co-workers. When he became the System safety coordinator, he proved he was a diligent worker by enumerating the problems and recommending appropriate solutions. When he saw that the safety program existed only on paper, he felt his opinion did not make a difference because he was just a low level employee. It is clear that the company was a growth oriented company, which prided itself on being productive and profitable. The bottom line was the balance sheet. It seems that other issues were not important until they ate into profits or led to legal consequences. The absence of any definitive action proved the company’s laxity towards employee security. In other words it was the typical entrepreneurial firm for which the adage -‘The ends justify the means’ worked well. And the ends were clearly spelt out – becoming the premiere broadband telecommunications provider. A very important character in this case is Gil, VP of Engineering. We can infer that he was a dictatorial manager, very dedicated to his goals. He was well regarded as he was usually successful in the endeavors he undertook. He had a reputation for being direct, devoid of compassion and absolutely ruthless. Gil was known to have performed the difficult job of eliminating forty percent of the workforce in the company’s new plant in Arizona. Emotions and feelings had no place for him in business. The priority was just getting the job done. The personality traits of Gil and Gordon as well as the organizational set up of the Cable Company were the basis for the problem that developed.
  4. 4. What is the problem? There are a number of factors that contributed to this unfortunate situation. It is evident that there existed a vast difference between the organizational cultures present in both the organizations. Organizational culture refers to a system of shared meaning held by its members. Since Gordon had spent 10 long years at Pacific Bell, it is natural to expect that he valued its organization culture. The Cable Company did not provide the kind of opportunities that Pacific Bell did for his personal development. He had a different set of values from the senior management, particularly Gil. This was an important problem. When conflict resulted between Gil and Gordon, Gil chose a conflict handling behavior that worsened the situation. Being a powerful man, he used the strategy of Competition to deal with the situation. He wanted to promote his own interest, which was to very emphatically reaffirm his position in the company. Unfortunately, he was not bothered about the impact of this on Gordon, who was totally dominated by him. The problem here seems to be Gil’s management style. Even though he is considered as efficient and determined, his style of functioning has serious repercussions on the morale and motivation of his subordinates. Another problem is related to the structure of the company. Though we do not know much about the entire organization, we have made a diagram depicting the various individuals involved with the loss control process.
  5. 5. PEOPLE INVOLVED WITH THE LOSS CONTROL PROCESS Parent Company Director of Risk Management Lawrence Walsh CEO Cable Company Joan Gil Sponsor, Safety Committee Executive VP Engineering Bob Ron’s Boss Ron Gordon’s Boss Terry Head of Safety committee Gordon System safety coordinator (Colors- Blue depicts those who favored the implementation of new safety measures whereas red refers to those who did not encourage the implementation) If we see the diagram and consider only the safety aspect of Gordon’s job, we see that the company follows a Chain type of communication. Gordon was supposed to report to Terry, the safety head. However, in the case we read of Ron being very supportive of Gil’s ideas and Bob being very resistant to take action. These two individuals are not a part of the safety committee, but they are making decisions on Gordon’s work.
  6. 6. We do not know the full facts, but this suggests that probably the unity of command principle is being violated in the company, as more than one person is evaluating Gordon’s work. It is also seen that Bob and Gill are resistant towards the implementation of his suggestions. Terra and Joan, who are important in the safety committee, want improvements in the field. In addition, the CEO, the most important person in the company is eager to cut down on the financial losses occurring due to employee accidents. The ideas proposed by Gordon are congruent with the main aim of the company at present, yet they meet with considerable resistance. This indicates a problem with the organizational structure. There is also a problem with effective communication in the company since Gil has obviously misunderstood Gordon’s good intentions as a kind of a personal affront. This point is illustrated in much greater detail in the ‘Lessons learnt’ part of this analysis. What now? Solutions, Outcomes, and the consequences of various solutions If we look at the steps that can be taken in order to solve the current problem, a number of options come to mind. We assume here that other officials of the company come to know through the grapevine exactly what transpired between Gordon and Gil, and work to rectify the conflict. They recognize the fact that even though the memo was not very well worded, it does certainly represent the sense of initiative and social responsibility that Gordon has. They decide to let him continue and re-organize the organization so as to minimize the losses from neglecting safety. Changing the network of communication - Since communication was a major problem, the communication network could be experimented with. The present network seems to be a chain network. An all-channel network could be introduced. The main benefit of such a network is its speed. This is important in the safety program because the company is losing money and goodwill as a result of the injuries. Also, the main cause for frustration was the slow implementation of safety measures. Hence the safety committee needs to act fast. A potential problem is however the undermining of the hierarchical structure which the company generally follows. Written vs. Oral Communication – Let us look back at the memo. Gordon chose to use written communication, instead of voicing his concerns orally.
  7. 7. Although a written document is usually more coherent, it suffers from the disadvantages of slow feedback and possible misinterpretation particularly if the writer is someone not known to the receiver. Workers should realize that in issues which can be interpreted as putting blame on someone for non- performance of work, it may be better to talk orally to remove misconceptions. Another aspect is the need to build trust between people in organizations. Autonomy in the Workplace -The Company should experiment with providing a greater amount of freedom and autonomy to its employees. This would certainly speed up a number of processes. Motivation would be encouraged if the employees have some degree of control over their work. However, this could undermine the authority of upper level management in the eyes of the workers. If an organization has been strongly devoid of worker autonomy, it is important to avoid a situation where workers suddenly find they have power. This can seriously impair existing organizational structures. Using some of the terminology, a shift from a mechanistic structure to one that incorporates certain elements of both mechanistic and organic structures could be possible. Process Reengineering – Another possible approach is process reengineering. The organization’s distinctive competencies need to be identified and core processes need to be assessed. A horizontal reorganization usually takes place. It means setting up a new organizational structure and changing the culture prevalent at the firm. This is a fairly complex procedure. The positives from this for the company are that it will be able to implement much needed safety programs as a priority and save expenditure on accidents. New approaches that encourage autonomy and motivate employees could be introduced. However, there are dangers too. Reengineering does lead to the loss of middle level management, and the initial transition is far from easy. We now consider the possible outcomes if management does not look into the depths of the episode and is unwilling to bring about any organizational changes or implement the above mentioned solutions. These outcomes would not be too desirable. Given Gil’s personality, he would be unwilling to apologize to Gordon. In fact, if the company does not change itself, then Gil could probably fire Gordon because he does not fit in with the prevalent organizational culture at the firm. Elimination of anything that is different from the company’s norms would be the strategy Gil is likely to follow As for Gordon, we know that he has suffered from a low morale since the incident. He still analyses it and feels powerless in the present structure. Although quitting a job is always a last resort, he might consider that option as his self respect has been deeply hurt and he is not able to perform at his optimal level. On the other hand, if he is not fired, he can make an effort to get his point across to other managers. However, this would require a lot pf persistence and struggle. Gordon is also unlikely to get support as the organization is non- unionized.
  8. 8. Looking at the solutions available, we feel that substantive changes are required in the structure of the firm and the styles of management. Employees need to be involved to a greater degree in the firm, and communication processes need re- evaluation. Noting the complexity of the task it would be best if the company hires an experienced, independent consultant who suggests some kind of reengineering. Lessons learnt from the case The relation between the lessons and the theories of organizational behavior This case provides a real life example of how organizational cultures can vary between different firms. Two important characteristics of organizational culture are outcome orientation and people orientation. If management takes into account the effect of the outcomes of its decisions on employees, it is said to be a People oriented organization. On the other hand Outcome orientation is the degree to which management focuses on results and productivity rather than the techniques and methods used to obtain that productivity. Using these two criteria, we can compare Pacific bell and the Cable Company. Pacific’s immediate response to security issues signifies it being more people oriented than Gordon’s new company. The new company was a subsidiary of a large Fortune 500 company, fast paced and modeled on entrepreneurship. The company was committed to being the best. As such it had a very high outcome orientation. While joining his job, Gordon never took into account how the difference in organizational cultures could effect his job satisfaction. The subsequent events reinforce the importance of evaluating the degree to which ones personality and culture fits in with that prevalent at the organization. Gordon’s value system was acquired as a result of ten years of socialization at Pacific Bell. Hence, we realize that different value systems can be the cause of conflict in the workplace. This case reiterates the problems that can be posed by barriers to effective communication. Even though the memo was not intended to be addressed to Gil, the initial form of communication between the two was the memo. The wordings of the memo were ‘selectively perceived’ by Gil. As we have learnt in class, selective perception takes place based on the needs, experience, background and personal characteristics of the receiver. Gil had a reputation for getting the job done. This would have made him feel important and egoistic. In addition, he was at the upper levels of the hierarchy in the organization. His position and
  9. 9. power within the company made him perceive the memo as being a challenge to his authority and a criticism of his abilities by a technician who had just joined the company. In this case, we also see that language can severely impede communication. There does seem to be a difference in what the memo meant to Gordon and what it signified for Gil. We also feel that the memo could have been worded in a better way. Even though well meaning, some sentences in the memo can be termed as provocative for a man like Gil who is used to authoritarianism. A phrase like the company ‘needs to show genuine interest’ implies that no one is serious about the problem. This might be true, but it needs to be a put across in a more subtle manner. ‘Having a safety program on paper only neither fools nor benefits anyone’ is a very strong statement that can trigger off the kind of reaction that Gil demonstrated. The impression this sentence creates is that the company is a conniving organization that aims to fool people. However, these errors in wordings certainly do not justify Gil’s reaction. The topic of ethics is a very subjective one. The question of ethics also comes into play in a subtle way in this case. After doing his research and offering solutions, Gordon had two choices. He could sit quietly since he had done his job by defining problems and suggesting solutions. The second alternative was making a pro active effort to point out the necessity of immediately implementing his suggestions. It would have certainly crossed his mind that some people in upper management might not like a technician to teach them what to do. However, he decided it was more important for him to pursue the cause of employee safety even if it met with resistance. Being a socially responsive person, he took the risk of annoying his superiors. This shows that the question of how far one is willing to go for what one believes in is a relevant question and every individual has to find his or her own answer to it. Lastly we see that Gordon felt he was sidelined in the work processes because he was a mere technician. This led to a great sense of frustration. It becomes evident that companies that do not offer employees a participative role fail to motivate them. The lower the level of employee empowerment in a company, the higher is the corresponding rate of employee turnover. The lessons we learn from this case are important as they turn out to be quite well related with the theories proposed in the field of organizational behavior. Hence, they serve as guidelines to avoid problems in the workplace.